What Now? Your Speechwriters

December 5, 2008

No president had a White House speechwriting shop as oddly constructed as Richard Nixon’s. Its three senior writers were about as far apart in background and ideology as it is possible to get: Raymond Price (liberal, WASP); Patrick Buchanan (conservative, Catholic); and William Safire (centrist, Jew). According to Safire, “When Nixon wanted to take a shot at somebody, he turned to Buchanan. . . . When Nixon wanted a vision of the nation’s future, he turned to Price.” Safire himself contributed “a touch of humor.” Nixon did not want them to work together as a committee. The moral of the story is, I guess, that a president can have any type of staff that he feels serves his purpose.

##1##Where you look for a speechwriter also defies a simple answer. Among those who did heavy work for Franklin Roosevelt, Raymond Moley was a professor at Columbia University, Samuel Rosenman left his seat on the New York Supreme Court to join the White House staff (not as a lawyer, but as the speechwriter), Robert Sherwood was a playwright who won four Pulitzer Prizes, Archibald MacLeish was a poet who won three Pulitzers, and Charles Michelson was the publicity chief at the Democratic National Committee. Good speechwriters are merely people who are good at putting words—in speech form—in other people’s mouths.

Since you already have speechwriters—presidential candidates have to have them, as well as those who hold the jobs that lead to the presidency—your basic question is probably not where to find them but what you do with them in the White House. The argument among scholars revolves around whether to put them in their own box (and direct them to stay in it) or distribute them among policymaking offices, as they were in an earlier time.

The problem is that presidents now make so many more speeches.

Robert Schlesinger, in White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, notes that Herbert Hoover averaged eight public appearances a month, Kennedy nearly nineteen, and Clinton more than twenty-eight. Your speechwriters will have to be tightly organized to meet this demand. At the same time, you should seek ways to take advantage of the talents they could bring to creating your policies, not just to explaining them.

If ever there was a case of divine intervention on behalf of the harried speechwriter, it occurred just before a “Dinner with Ike” for 7,000 in Los Angeles on January 27, 1960. The speech of that evening was a big deal: 83 dinners around the country designed to raise $5 million were connected by closed-circuit TV, with Richard Nixon in Chicago, Nelson Rockefeller in Washington, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in Pittsburgh and the president accepting the tributes in Los Angeles. And the piece of paper in my typewriter was absolutely blank.

But in my in-box appeared a letter:

My dear Mr. President,

I have just turned 21 years of age. I am now old enough to vote and mature enough to take part in political elections. My problem is, which party am I best suited to serve? I thought you would be able to help me by telling me what the Republican Party stands for. What are its goals and in what way may I help it to achieve them?

Shirley Jean Havens
Arvada, Colorado

Here’s the divine intervention part: I had nothing to do with presidential correspondence. The correspondence section at the White House had never before forwarded a letter addressed to the president to me (nor would it ever do so again).

So the president would tell Shirley Jean why she should be a Republican.

The president loved the idea, picked up the phone, and asked Aksel Nielson, a Denver banker who was a good friend, to go to Arvada and give him a report on Shirley Jean. (Maybe she was a communist or a drug dealer.) The report came back that Shirley Jean was polite, pretty, a mother of two, and the wife of a plumber. Equally nice: she had written the same letter to Harry Truman and had received a gruff reply to go read a book. Shirley Jean was then invited to the “Dinner with Ike” in Denver so that she could witness (along with Time and Life) the president’s reply to her letter. After that, she kept writing the president—but of course that wasn’t my department.